Patient portals are secure websites—commonly integrated with electronic health records (EHR) systems—that give patients 24-hour access to services, messages and information from their care team. These portals are like the Swiss army knife of medical software applications: They provide a wide range of tools to help providers carry out patient-related tasks, from scheduling and billing to corresponding and prescribing.
Patient portal vendors recognize the value of incorporating such a versatile application in their product offerings. As a result, there are hundreds of systems on the market today. We put together this buyer’s guide to help you sort through them all, so you can find the solution that’s ideal for your practice.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Your practice should consider buying patient portal software for a number of reasons—but perhaps the most compelling one involves the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act of 2009. HITECH offers federal stimulus money to practices that invest in health IT to achieve various “meaningful use” requirements.
These requirements have been introduced in stages; the final one, stage three, has a measure calling for the “coordination of care through patient engagement.” This means providers must use technology to give patients access to health information for viewing, downloading and/or transmitting to a third party. As we’ll explain later in this guide, patient portal software can handle all these tasks, and more.
Another reason to implement patient portal software: It’s in demand among providers, so patients will come to expect it at your practice. In fact, a recent survey presented by the Digital Health Coalition found that 52 percent of prescribers (M.D.s, N.P.s and P.A.s) offer a patient portal, while another 17 percent plan to offer one in the next 12 months.
As other studies show, patients are enthusiastic about this technology, too. Research published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons finds that a patient portal is a preferred follow-up channel for surgery patients: In fact, 76 percent say online-only follow-up care would be sufficient, rather than in-person visits.
A different study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research concludes that patients with portal access to notes from their primary care doctor are more likely to stick to their prescribed medication regime. Clearly, patient portals should be a top priority in any health IT investment plan.
|Medical records access||The ability for patients to access personal medical records is key. These records include lab results, diagnoses, medications, allergies, clinical summaries and more. To encourage patients to use the software, some practices are instituting online-only lab results delivery.|
|Digital paperwork||Instead of filling out new patient registration forms at the office, users can fill out that paperwork online. Since the data is already digitized, office staff save time scanning documents. In addition to intake forms, portals can provide satisfaction surveys and general health assessments for patients to complete before or after a visit.|
|Appointment setting||Typically, provider schedules are shown on a calendar in the portal, and patients can select the best time slot. Depending on your system, you can enable either appointment requests or live appointment scheduling. With the former, patients request a particular slot, an office staff member confirms the appointment and the patient is notified afterward. A system with live appointment scheduling automatically updates your practice management schedule as patients pick time slots, requiring no further staff involvement.|
|Prescription refills||Automate prescription renewal requests by letting patients ask for refills through the portal. Most systems have a dedicated module where patients can enter their information (e.g., medication, pharmacy of choice) and then submit the prescription request. The provider’s staff is notified, and can verify, approve and/or respond to the request through the portal.|
|Online bill pay||Electronic billing statements take the collections process online. Patients can make secure payments through the patient portal using a credit card number. The system will automatically process those payments once they’re submitted.|
|Secure messaging||Exchange messages with patients through the portal instead of over the phone. Most systems provide a secure electronic messaging platform that emails patients when their care team sends a new message. Providers can respond to messages that patients send through the portal, too.|
Patient portal vendors often package the software as part of an integrated EHR suite that includes other applications; however, the patient portal functionality can also be purchased as a stand-alone or “best-of-breed” program. If you go with a stand-alone system, it’s important for you to make sure it can integrate with the EHR you’re already using.
Some stand-alone patient portal vendors already have partnerships with EHR vendors, and offer complementary integration between the two—but that’s not always the case. Experts warn integrating a third-party patient portal with your EHR may cost you more time and money than you budgeted. If you plan to do this, be sure to get an interface cost estimate from any vendors you evaluate.
With an EHR suite, users typically don’t pay extra for patient portal functionality. However, stand-alone systems have different pricing models in place, depending on whether a practice wants to pay per patient or per provider.
For example, buyers might pay a low monthly fee depending on how many patients actually use the portal during a set time period. In this model, the fee would be paid for each patient user.
Alternatively, a higher monthly pricing fee could be applied if the practice would rather pay based on the number of registered providers managing the patient portal. A “provider” is anyone providing care to patients (not counting administrative staff). Here, the fee would be paid for each provider user.
The two examples above are for a cloud-based deployment model, in which the system is hosted on external servers and accessed remotely through the Web. On-premise deployments, in which the software is hosted on the provider’s own server, are also available from some patient portal vendors, coming with a one-time perpetual license fee that is significantly higher than cloud-based fees.
The following trends are common in the patient portal software market:
- Customizations: While fees may apply for customizing your portal, you may find this is worth the extra expense, depending on your practice’s needs. Some examples of customizations include changes to registration form templates and custom home page designs.
- HIPAA compliance: The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) includes a series of mandates to protect the privacy and security of electronic patient records. Most patient portal vendors will advertise that their products are HIPAA-compliant and have security standards, such as data encryption technology, for their systems.